Quietly angry and subtly polemical, Cautiva addresses Argentina’s long period of willful amnesia following military rule from 1976 to 1983 and the “disappearance” of thousands of student activists, union members, and other dissidents. First-time director Gastón Biraben creates a poignant allegory of this historical-political amnesia and the struggle to overcome it with the story of Cristina (Bárbara Lombardo), a teenager who, one day in 1994, finds that her parents are not who she thought they were and that neither is she.
The film announces it’s political intentions, and targets, immediately. It opens with a ghostly, staticky television image of a stadium full of ecstatic soccer fans chanting and waving the cheerful light-blue and white Argentine colors. As the image becomes clearer it reveals itself to be a broadcast of Argentina’s famous 1978 World Cup victory over the Netherlands. After the Argentines score the goal putting them over the top, the home-town crowd erupts and the television camera focuses on a couple of figures sitting close to the field: “President General Videla”, reads the yellow text under a shot of a mustachioed, aristocratic-looking man in a business suit; there’s also “Admiral Massera”, who has a grin on his concrete-block face; looking grimmer and wearing a grey trench coat against a light drizzle is “Ex-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger”. After the game has ended, nine men, including Videla and Massera, are brought onto the field. “Their Excellencies, the commanders of the nation’s Armed Forces; members of the Military Junta!” announces the sportscaster as the crowd is obscured by confetti and blue and white flags.
It’s the day of the ’78 World Cup, we find out later, that Cristina is born to a blindfolded and bruised woman in the dank, fluorescent-lit basement of a military prison. Fast forward 16 years and Cristina is celebrating her “Quinceañera” in a comfortable, loving, upper-middle class home outside of Buenos Aires. Cristina is a popular, pretty girl who does well in school and is adored by her parents and godparents — but there are early hints that she doesn’t quite belong, that she’s different. She has a sober, mostly unsmiling face — reflecting the tone of the movie — that contrasts with the gregariousness of her privileged classmates and friends. She also betrays a surprising amount of sympathy for Angélica (Mercedes Funes), a rebellious and angry girl who sits in the back of class and interrupts a lecture on Argentina’s constitution with an expletive-laden diatribe against the recent presidential pardon of ex-junta officials.
Cristina’s comfortable life is shattered when she is pulled out of her Catholic school one day and brought to a judge’s office in downtown Buenos Aires. Kindly, but directly and without condescension, Juez Barrenechea (Hugo Arana) tells Christiana that, “Your real name is not the one you have always used; your parents are two persons whose names you surely won’t recognize.” The two people she calls her parents, the judge tells her, “appropriated” her as a baby and her real parents disappeared after being detained by the military dictatorship. She is, he tells her, one of the hundreds of “stolen babies” who were born to political prisoners and then given away to members of the junta. “You are justly claimed by the relatives”, concludes the judge. When a shy and emotional older woman introduces herself as Cristina’s grandmother (Susana Campos), Cristina runs away and is chased by two bulky, gun-carrying men in suits. She escapes from the institutional, oppressive courthouse and finds herself, panicky but stoic-faced, on the busy streets of Buenos Aires.
The film is extremely empathetic in its visceral depiction of the dislocation and terror felt by Cristina as both her body and her identity are suddenly uprooted. She casts furtive, fearful glances at two policemen on the train home. Once she is finally there, her distraught parents embrace her with fierce love and protectiveness.
However, as Christiana begins to learn more about her country’s history and the places of her real and “adoptive” parents in it, she begins to move away from her former parents and closer to her grandmother and to the image of her mother. This mother, a utopian, communalist architect, remains in Cristina’s grandmother’s house like a ghost, leaving behind traces of herself in the clothes that still hang in the closet, the Pablo Neruda poem scrawled on her bedroom wall, and the Che portrait hanging above her desk. In a wrenching climatic scene, she finally confronts her “adoptive” parents and asks her “father”, a former Federal Police captain, about how she came to be their daughter. The break that results is final and mutual.
It’s easy to find an allegorical link between Cristina’s initial lack of self-awareness and some Argentines’ refusal to address the brutality and oppression in their country’s very recent past. Biraben is intent on not only pointing out how the blood drawn by the junta deeply stains many of Argentina’s institutions and citizens, but also on asking that his countrymen acknowledge the social movements crushed by the military government and perhaps, like Cristina, come to identify with them. Biraben’s wish is closer to being fulfilled since beginning work on this film. In 2003, the government of Néstor Kirchner reversed the amnesty laws protecting former military and police officials — every month seems to bring a new trial and more stories as horrifying as the one in this film.